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Going beyond ‘Jeopardy!’

IBM Watson, a supercomputer that can access 200 million pages of data to answer questions posed in natural language, was not designed to win money on quiz shows like “Jeopardy!”

“We did this because it was an opportunity to advance science,” said principal investigator David Ferrucci, the team leader of the Semantic Analysis and Integration Department at the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center. “We believe there is an opportunity for this technology to do a better job analyzing natural language content to solve problems in technical support, government and medicine.”

Ferrucci, who called himself a “geek at heart,” spoke to more than 300 students, faculty and staff who filled the Curry Student Center Ballroom on Wednesday evening for the third installment in Northeastern University’s Presidential Speaker Series entitled Profiles in Innovation. The series’ first two speakers were iRobot cofounder and CEO Colin Angle and airspace sculptor Janet Echelman.

President Joseph E. Aoun hosted the program, which is designed to bring the world’s most creative minds to campus for conversations on innovation and entrepreneurship.

Northeastern, he noted, partners with IBM on several global initiatives, including an innovative international co-op program that places students in project-management roles at IBM facilities in Argentina, Costa Rica and the Philippines. Over the last five years, more than 60 Northeastern students have completed co-ops with the multinational technology company, which employees more than 500 alumni.

For his part, Ferrucci recapped the four-year journey of building the one-of-a-kind question-answering computing system. Last year, Watson passed its first test on “Jeopardy!” by beating the quiz show’s top two champions in a televised exhibition match.

Ferrucci said Watson is able to rival a human’s ability to answer open-ended questions with speed, accuracy and confidence through temporal and geospatial reasoning and syntactic and semantic analysis of words and phrases.

In the beginning, many people had a cloudy understanding of the supercomputer’s power. “Our audience was bipolar,” Ferrucci explained. “On one end, people thought, ‘What’s the big deal? Computers know everything already.’ On the other end, people thought, ‘This is scary. Watson is going to take over the world.’ ”

Ferrucci would not go that far, but he did say that Watson could revolutionize the health-care industry by rapidly analyzing doctor’s notes, prescription histories, textbooks and medical journals to help physicians make diagnoses and treatment recommendations.

“There is a lot of valuable information in documents, and Watson would be able to consider many different hypotheses based on all of this [data],” Ferrucci said, noting that the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center has agreed to a partnership with IBM to develop a clinical decision support tool using Watson. “Adapting this technology to new domains is how we will scale this into a profitable business.”

After the lecture, Ferrucci fielded questions posed by audience members and social-media users, many of whom watched the hour-long event live on Facebook.

Ferrucci responded to one Twitter user who asked what creating Watson taught him about innovation.

“In the space of computer science today, innovating requires diversity and a lot of different perspectives from a lot of different people thinking about one problem,” he explained. In IBM’s case, he added, “we needed a certain level of investment in architecture and engineering in order to exploit that scientific diversity.”

Prior to Ferrucci’s address, Aoun played a fun video in which Watson was the president of Northeastern and Aoun was a lowly painter with a passion for co-op.

In the two-minute clip, a news reporter asked the supercomputer a series of questions for an article on experiential education in the age of artificial intelligence. One particular question stumped Watson but not Aoun, whose eloquent and passionate response prompted the supercomputer to promote him to a more prominent role within the university.

“Dr. Ferrucci was telling me that some people are afraid of machines, but you can clearly see that we embrace them,” Aoun said.

“We don’t believe they will replace us,” he added. “We believe we’re going to replace them.”